West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish

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West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish

The Supreme Court's decision in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379, 57 S. Ct. 578, 81 L. Ed. 703 (1937), marked the end of an era in U.S. constitutional Jurisprudence. The Court in Parrish repudiated Substantive Due Process and the "freedom of contract" doctrine that prior courts had used to invalidate state laws that regulated business and labor. By reversing precedent, the Court sent a signal to Congress and state legislatures that it would exercise judicial restraint and not stand in the way of legislation that had a legitimate government purpose.

In the case the West Coast Hotel Company challenged the constitutionality of the state of Washington's Minimum Wage law for women. Elsie Parrish, a hotel chambermaid, had filed a lawsuit seeking to recover the difference between the wages paid her and the minimum wage prescribed by law. The hotel company argued that the wage law violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Washington Supreme Court upheld the law, and the company appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many observers believed that the Court would strike down the law because of its decision in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 261 U.S. 525, 43 S. Ct. 394, 67 L. Ed. 785 (1923), which invalidated a minimum wage law for women and children. The Court in Adkins had reiterated that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment barred states from interfering with the freedom of employees to negotiate the terms of their employment with their employers. This doctrine of substantive due process was used to limit the substance of government regulations and other activities that affected "life, liberty, and property." Substantive due process was the basis for the freedom of contract doctrine that the Court had used to strike down state laws that regulated hours and work conditions, as well as wages.

However, in Parrish the Court, on a 5–4 vote, rejected the freedom of contract doctrine. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes noted that the Constitution does not refer to freedom of contract. Rather, it proscribes deprivation of liberty without Due Process of Law. Hughes pointed out that freedom is not absolute. Moreover, "the liberty safeguarded is liberty in a social organization which requires the protection of law against the evils which menace the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the people." Thus, constitutional liberty is "necessarily subject to restraints of due process" as long as government regulation is reasonable and furthers the interests of the community. He branded the Adkins decision as "a departure from the true application of the principles governing the regulation by the state of the relation of employer and employed."

The decision was made at the height of the Great Depression. Hughes took Judicial Notice of "the unparalleled demands for relief" arising out of the economic hard times. He concluded that the state of Washington was free to correct the abusive practices of "unconscionable employers" who disregard the public interest.

Parrish marked the end of an era in U.S. Constitutional Law. Substantive due process as a limitation on government power in the field of economic regulation became a dead letter.

Further readings

Maltz, Earl M. 1995."The Impact of the Constitutional Revolution of 1937 on the Dormant Commerce Clause—A Case Study in the Decline of State Autonomy." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 19 (fall).

Stunstein, Carl. 1987. "Lochner's Legacy." Columbia Law Review 87 (June).

Cross-references

Lochner v. New York; New Deal.

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